Why are the San Diego Chargers bothering to even show up for the Super Bowl?
The Chargers are a 19-point underdog against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. That’s the largest point spread in Super Bowl history. In fact, it’s the largest point spread in any NFL game this season. And there have been 234 of them, if you’re counting.
But Bill Arnsparger knows why the Chargers are going to show up - strange things can happen once the ball is kicked off. He knows that better than anyone in this game.
Arnsparger is the only man ever to see the Super Bowl from both sides of this pointspread mountain. Not only is he an assistant coach for these underdog Chargers, he was an assistant for the favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Arnsparger was a defensive coach on Don Shula’s staff when the mighty Colts rolled into that Super Bowl as an 18-point favorite over the AFL champion New York Jets. Until this year’s game, that was the largest point spread in Super Bowl history.
“Why’d you have to remind me of that?” mused Arnsparger.
Well, the Jets bothered to show up and bothered to win, shocking the Colts, 16-7.
The AFL champion had been blown out in the first two Super Bowls by the Green Bay Packers, and the Jets did not appear to be any match for a Baltimore team that blitzed through the NFL season at 13-1 and blasted Cleveland in the title game, 34-0. But the Jets never trailed on their way to the greatest upset in NFL history.
“We were expected to win because the people before us had won,” Arnsparger said. “The Jets were the up-and-comers. They up and came. We didn’t play well. They did. Excellent, in fact.”
But that wasn’t the most pressure-packed Super Bowl that ever involved Arnsparger. He’s coached in five of them - and arguably no team in Super Bowl history faced more pressure than the 1972 Miami Dolphins, for whom Arnsparger served as defensive coordinator.
The Dolphins were attempting to become the first (and only) team in NFL history to survive a season unbeaten. They brought a 16-0 record into that Super Bowl against the Washington Redskins.
“There was a lot of pressure on that team,” Arnsparger said. “If we don’t win, we haven’t accomplished anything. So we had to win that game. If we end up 16-1, we haven’t done anything. We’re just another team. So there was some motivation there. It was a must. I remember the feeling. We had to do it. That’s the only way we were going to set ourselves apart, going undefeated.”
The Dolphins prevailed, 14-7, to build their own little shelf in history. Arnsparger and the Dolphins built another shelf in 1973 when they became one of only five franchises to win back-toback Super Bowls.
Arnsparger also was involved in losing Super Bowl efforts with the Dolphins in 1971 and ‘82. He left the NFL to become head coach at LSU in 1984 and later became the athletic director at Florida. But he returned in 1992 as defensive coordinator of the Chargers.
Now Arnsparger, 68, probably faces the toughest challenge of anyone in this Super Bowl. He must devise a plan to slow down the NFL’s best offense. To do that, he must devise a plan to slow down the NFL’s best quarterback.
Steve Young set an NFL record for passing efficiency this season with a 112.8 rating. He completed 70.3 percent of his passes for 3,969 yards and 35 touchdowns. He won his fourth consecutive NFL passing championship and was selected to his third consecutive Pro Bowl.
But it’s not like Arnsparger has never faced greatness at quarterback in the Super Bowl. Let’s see, there was Joe Namath in Super Bowl III, Roger Staubach in Super Bowl VI, Fran Tarkenton in Super Bowl VIII. … All are Hall of Famers. Steve Young isn’t. At least not yet.
Namath was the only member of those Canton triplets to pass for 200 yards against an Arnsparger defense in the Super Bowl, and Staubach the only one to throw a touchdown pass. Arnsparger came up with schemes for Namath, Staubach and Tarkenton, and he’ll come up with one for Young.
And yes, Arnsparger is looking forward to this Super Bowl, regardless of the point spread.
“It’s the competition on Sunday that you enjoy,” Arnsparger said. “That’s why I got back in it. I knew what it was like. I enjoyed it. I wanted to be part of it again. I look forward to this game. I look forward to all of them.”
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